A City in the North, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
It sometimes seems that, at some point in their career, every Western science fiction author tries to write Heart of Darkness. For Marta Randall, that point came early – with her second novel, A City in the North. Though mapping Conrad’s themes of civilisation versus savagery onto a galactic stage now seems a trite and banal exercise, and literature no longer finds colonialism an acceptable subject, its appeal to genre writers of the 1970s and earlier is not hard to fathom. Science fiction is often about the supremacy of science and technology, and “primitive” cultures provided a cheap and easy backdrop against which to demonstrate this. Which is not to say that all such stories were lacking in subtlety or sensitivity. A City in the North is a story which treads a fine line between what was considered acceptable in the mid-1970s and what is considered acceptable in the 21st century, but is a surprisingly clever and subtle novel and a good deal better than any of its contemporaries based on the same theme.
Toyon Sutak and Alin Kennerin have travelled to the world of Hoep-Hanninah because Toyon has long had a dream of visiting the ancient ruins in the north of the planet’s only continent. The ruined city, Hoep-Tashik, is actually off-limits, but Toyon is a rich and powerful man and is sure he can sway the local authorities to give him permission. Hoep-Hanninah is a company world, administered by an ineffectual governor. It is also inhabited. The Hanninah are:
“squat, square creatures with long arms and bowed legs, covered with dark hair save for face, palms, soles, belly … Apes, they looked; apes, they walked, yet they had a name for themselves and their world, engaged in incomprehensible rituals, were sentient, aware of their own condition as living creatures on the way to death.” (p 10)
The humans find it impossible to believe that the Hanninah, who live a simple nomadic lifestyle, could have built Hoep-Tashik, and the aliens certainly refuse to explain themselves or describe their past. The Company employees on the world, seeing this, subsequently treat the Hanninah like either second-class citizens or clever animals – and that’s a narrative that’s all to sadly common in the real world.
Toyon gets permission to visit Hoep-Tashik, but only if he travels there by land. Meanwhile, Alin has been studying the Hanninah and appears to have some sort of unexplained affinity with them. The Company head on the planet, Haecker, has decided that Toyon and Alin are actually government spies, sent to discover what the Company is really doing on Hoep-Hanninah. When Toyon and Alin disappear from the governor’s house, having been offered a lift north by rogue Company driver Quellan, Haecker decides all three must be eliminated.
As the trio travel further north, they meet up with a tribe of Hanninah, and Alin begins to participate in their “incomprehensible rituals”. Clearly, the Hanninah are more than they appear to be. But Haecker is getting desperate, and he doesn’t care how many of the aliens die in his hunt for Toyon, Alin and Quellan.
There’s nothing new in the set-up of A City in the North, except perhaps the fact it’s set on an alien planet. The company outpost which rules a remote corner of some distant land has been a staple of both literature and cinema for decades. Throwing a pair of ingénus into the mix is par for the course. And as the story progresses, it is only expected that they should change just as much as their surroundings change as direct result of their appearance. Unfortunately, such stories are predicated on the superiority – not only technological, but also moral – of the intruders. They are played off against the company man, and the locals are typically little more than background colour. The plot of A City in the North, however, is very much predicated on the nature of the Hanninah. Haecker, the governor, Quellan, even Toyon and Alin, might well be stock characters, and they may be playing out a standard plot of Western literature, but it’s a plot that’s informed and progressed by the Hanninah themselves.
A City in the North is structured as a mixture of journal entries by Toyon and Alin, and tightly-limited point-of-view narratives by other members of the cast. Toyon is, perhaps, a bit of a cliché – the self-made zillionnaire who expects everything to go his way. Alin is better-drawn, with an interesting background – which, in fact, is used in Randall’s next two novels, Journey and Dangerous Game. For all that A City in the North may resemble a science-fictional Heart of Darkness, Randall has certainly put an interesting spin on her version, and that more than makes up for slight datedness in approach or sensibilities.
Marta Randall, a Mexico-born sf writer, seems mostly forgotten these days. While she only wrote six sf novels, published between 1976 and 1984, she was also the first female president of the SFWA. Judging by Islands and A City in the North, the two novels by her I’ve read to date, she deserves to be far better known. I can think of plenty of inferior writers of the same period whose books remain in print. If you ever stumble across a Marta Randall novel in a second-hand book shop, buy it. You won’t be disappointed.